The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported tables showing the statewide Benchmark results for the school year which just ended, as well as those for the Little Rock School District.
While small corrections to this statewide data will come out later this summer, this release signals the end of the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) tests, which will be replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam in the upcoming school year. The terms Benchmark and ACTAAP have been used interchangeably.
These last Benchmark scores showed a continuation of the drop-off that was seen last year (2012-13). In 2012-13, all statewide scores, 3rd through 8th grade, math and literacy, either remained the same as the previous year or went down. This decline continued for the state in 2013-14, with the average score on all exams dropping or remaining the same once again.
But why? Why the drop in scores across the state? We would advance two scenarios: 1) the weather, and 2) the changing state standards. While we are certainly not the type of group that would make excuses for the educational system over the long-term, we do think that the story of each education year has some quirks to it. Even though these quirks would even out in the long-run, they do have an effect on this year’s test scores.
Weather – as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported – caused school cancellations across the state. Some districts missed fewer than 10 days, but many districts came close to missing 20 days, with several going over. While there were procedures for making up those missed days, the statewide exam was not moved back. So, many districts had 15 to 20 less instructional days before the Benchmark exam was administered.
Also, while teachers switched over to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) over the past few years (Grades K-2 in 2011-12, 3-8 in 2012-13, and 9-12 in 2013-14), the Benchmark exam was still based on the old standards. The CCSS debate aside, when the standards are different from what is being tested, you can imagine that scores could suffer accordingly. Since the PARCC exam is aligned with CCSS, this issue will be irrelevant next year. While some will talk about learning a new test, at least the standards and assessment will be aligned.
Finally, a separate issue is that a regime change in the world of testing also means districts and schools will no longer be able to make comparisons to test scores from the years before PARCC. Comparing PARCC tests to the prior ACTAAP tests would be like comparing apples and oranges. We will still be able to track progress over time using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) but only at the state level.
The good news is that there’s still a lot we can learn with a new test in place. Under PARCC, we will still be able to access district- and school-level results and compare districts’ and schools’ performance in the 2014-15 school year. Furthermore, even under the new Common Core regime, educators and policy makers in Arkansas will be able to use PARCC assessments to measure the achievement gaps between different subgroups. For a more in depth look at Achievement Gaps, see our Arkansas Education Report.
Perhaps most exciting is that, for the first time, we will be able to compare district- and school-level results in other states using PARCC assessments in the 2014-15 school year. These states are Colorado, D.C., Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, and Rhode Island. We could learn how students in Little Rock are performing compared to students in Chicago, how students in rural districts in Arkansas compare to rural districts in New Mexico.